Benedict Cumberbatch’s shoes

you can’t handle the suit.

New Year’s Eve promises glamour, excitement and magic.  Not that the evening really lives up to its reputation very often, but one can hope for a surprise, and maybe a little glitter that will twinkle on into the new year.  Rather than roll out one of those long lists that chronicle the year that is passed, MoT looks ahead to the promise of 2013, finding our hope in one bright glimmer from ’12 that took the form of Benedict Cumberbatch (and not just his shoes–but back to them momentarily).

Of the little cadre of impressive young British actors who made a great big spiffing splash this year, Benedict Cumberbatch receives the salute from MoT Department of Anglophilia and General Sartorial Coolness.  His peers Michael Faasbender and Tom Hiddleston (below) probably have been told their whole lives that they are rather easy on the eye (in addition to having all that talent). They are people we expect to smoothly transition into positions as masters of their domain, not to mention style icons du jour.  Not so much Benedict.  He is the most unlikely screen star of the batch, awkward and quirky, like his name.  He’s too lean, he’s got that bushy hair, small eyes, and gaunt features in that long horsey mug.  In short, Benedict Cumberbatch is not another pretty face.  And yet through performance after performance somehow has made these motley features tremendously compelling.  Is he more captivating because of his uncharacteristic looks or because we mortals somehow relate to him better because of them, and enjoy the surprise of being so thoroughly pulled into the orbit of his easy but uncomfortable coolness?  It’s like this: you go to the Louvre knowing you’re going to see gorgeous beautiful graceful things that you’ve known your whole life and have been taught to admire; you know how to identify their widely-loved features, are not surprised nor disappointed by Canova or Leonardo or whoever.  You leave and go on to the next expected stop of wonderfulness on your itinerary.  Or you go to some small gallery you only remember vaguely reading about in some dumb blog.  But behold: there’s some artist, let’s say some watercolorist–you didn’t know you even fancied water colors–whose work leaps off the wall, commanding you with its sweeping colors and unexpected brushstrokes.  You stare.  You can’t pull yourself away.  You’re late to work.  You think about it for the rest of the week, you tell all your friends: you’ve got to go see this guy.

Benedict Cumberbatch is, of course, the unexpected surprise, and not just in his film roles.  While other stars are obviously, boringly (if elegantly), styled, we get the sense that Benedict just sort of does what he wants because he doesn’t think anyone is looking, anyway.  And as with his performances, nails it, as you see in the cropped picture above.  Why do we include an image of just the shoes?  Because to take in the whole unlikely charisma of this fellow is to court disaster.  You are advised to look upon a complete ensemble only through a pinhole pricked in a shoebox.  Don’t blame us if you don’t heed our words.  You’ve been warned.

Shouldn’t life just be like that; shouldn’t we all wish our new year to unfold in the same majestic manner with an outlandish and brave use of whatever unpromising–or maybe just non-traditionally promising–material we have?  We wish for ourselves and you, dear reader, a Cumberbatchish year.  Let’s call it the year of the Cumberbatch.  Annus Cumberbilis.  Set off fireworks tonight, but tomorrow, follow the Sign of the Shoe.

perfectly acceptable, predictable hangars for Armani, if you like that sort of thing.

shoe crime


Those Spartans.  Those magnificent, well-accessorized Spartans.  Although the Athenians get more credit for “philosophy” and “art” and “culture” and stuff, it’s the Spartans who could teach us a thing or two about dressing for demanding conditions in a harsh climate.  From their jaunty red capes (carefully tailored to provide maximum warming to the deltoids and trapeziuses while bearing abs so killer that a single view would send most foes fleeing for their very lives) to their excellent footwear, those Spartans knew how to accessorize and rock a killa uniform.
And how about those sandals!  They provide maximum shin protection while exposing the heel to cooling upward drafts from the wells into which one must, from time to time, kick emissaries from enemy nations.  What great dual action!  Not to mention their undeniable wow factor.  Clearly, the Spartans knew from sandals.

So why is it that the Romans have become so well-woven into the cobbler’s lexicon?  And how is it that they get so much credit for their version of the Spartan shoe that we now refer to as soi-disant “gladiator sandals”?

kiwi gladiator

Those Romans!  They knew a thing or two about swiping other cultures’ excellent ideas and taking credit for them.  Historical documents like 300 and Gladiator clearly reveal (as MoT‘s resident Shoeologist confirms from her painstaking graduate-level research) the way the Romans adopted the general idea of the Spartan sandal, enhanced its strappiness and added a bit o’ imperial beadazzling, and faster than you can say quod erat demonstrandum, a new kicks craze was born.

more gladiators: these from Cypress

Two millennia later we’ve yet to kick it.  Tall and strappy (and we mean really tall and really strappy) sandals have come and gone through the years, but got a whole new lease on life when Chanel trotted out its resort collection back in 2007.  Behold the über-gladiator sandal:

Chanel gladiator sandals, 2007

All of us here at MoT HQ were gaga about the whole get up; you can bet your big floppy sun hat that those of us who look like Chanel models and did our best to emulate it.  (Especially on weekly bikini day.)  Those of us who look more like we have a few children or graduate degrees (or both in equal numbers) stayed away from the tall sandals, not quite sure they were quite the thing for the office, the grocery store, the kids’ soccer field and so on.  And even if we had, we would worry about getting funky tan lines on the three days of the summer we actually got to go outside to play.  (And it was awfully hard to source those matching strappy glove things.)  While foregoing the knee-high glads, we supported anyone who could pull off this look with a hearty brava.

But now we are faced with something new under the sun–or at least, a new version this old something.  Instead of being under the sun, it ought to be kept locked behind closed doors.  It appears that, having stretched the sandal to what to most eyes appeared to be its limit (reaching boot-like heights but still maintaining identity of a sandal), shoe designers have taken a regrettable turn by hybridizing the two kinds of footwear.

Such unions sometimes result in wonderful offspring: witness the marriage of Mary Jane and Stiletto performed by Manolo Blahnik.

a hybrid we can believe in (and that we dream of regularly): Manolo Blahnik’s Mary Jane

The mongrel rolling off the runways this season is a sad, ugly marriage.  And it needs to stop.  Philosophically, functionally and aesthetically, these sandal-plus-leg-warmer-ankle-shackle get ups are an absolute travesty of shoedom.  This approach to shoe design is a crime, and Matters of Taste is here to save you from being a victim.  Or a perpetrator.  For your personal safety, read on.

Alexander McQueen ($779)

In this exemplary offering, the shin/ankle element has been reduced from its earlier (ca. 2007 Chanel) heights that recalled gladiators and warriors and made us all feel pretty Xena-esque.  This short version can only be appropriate for people whose jobs involve a whip (at either end) or a pole, and we think that alluding to such is in the worst of taste.

Velvet Angels, “Queen” ($299)

The color!  The fringe!  How is it that they couldn’t have worked some sequins in to make this part of the uniform for people who work at establishments with a name like “Velvet Angels”?

Giuseppe Zanotti ($650)

Studded cuffs and virtually bare feet: anyone else having a really, really uncomfortable Roots flashback?

Another part of our complaint stems from simple confusion of function.  Is this a warm-weather shoe, or a cold-weather shoe?  It’s one thing to open a peep-toe in a pump, but in that case you still know what you’re wearing (a pump), what it goes with (almost anything) and where it can go (virtually anywhere).  These hybrids are just confused; they have no name (perhaps that’s all for the better: the shoe world’s They-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named).  Are they boots or sandals?  Should we wear them in cold or hot?  With wool skirts or cotton sundresses? We don’t know!

Michael Kors, “Angelo” ($295)

From Michael Kors: the breezy ease of a buckled sandal plus the luxurious warmth of a suede legwarmer: now who doesn’t want that at poolside?  Or . . . in the ski lodge?

Dolce Vita, “Irene” ($153)

Designers of this breed of shoe also seem to really have it bad for bad hardware: confusion abounds.  Are these really so difficult to get in and out of that we need multiple wacky fastening systems?  And should sandals ever be associated with zippers?  We think not.

Jessica Simpson, “Nikina” ($79)

Oh my gosh, these are even worse.  They give the suggestion that, like a biker jacket, they can be zipped up or down depending on if we’re jumping on our bikes to make a getaway if we’re just ready to dive into a gang fight.  If ever faced with that decision, we will be happy to have these shoes by Jessica Simpson (and really, who better to personify biker gang fight than Jessica Simpson?), although we worry that when we peel out on our choppers we may foul our pedicures with smushed bug guts.  Ew!

Jessica Simpson, “Noho” ($110)

The lighter side of Jessica Simpson’s life as a biker chick.

DV by Dolce Vita, “Avila” ($101)

Buckles and laces and zippers, oh my!  Wear the Tin Man shoes (see below) while you are trying to work up the heart to strap/zip/lace yourself into these beauties by DV.

And then there is the simple, but essential, matter of aesthetics.  These must be the ugliest footwear.  Ever.  Neither pretty when empty nor flattering when filled with a foot.  In fact, their design goes completely against the way that good shoes can enhance good features and mask the bad ones.  We’ve already warned you about bearing your ugly feet to the world in our post about the dreaded flip-flop.  These hybrid things are just as bad as those nasty plastic thongs in what they reveal, while at the same time making the wearer as thick as possible at the ankle, which is bulked up by all this cuffing nonsense.  Really, try and imagine these examples doing anything better than a good pair of sandals OR boots might do for you:

Vicini, “Tapeet” ($354)

If you don’t have the time to knit your own shackles before going to Lilith Fair, just fork over $350 to Vicini.  If they don’t canklify your legs quickly enough, try on these architecturally-inspired designs, which may be built from actual construction debris:

Rock & Republic, “Gwyneth” ($379)

We think this pair from Rock & Republic is for architects who can’t get enough of those vernacularish shed-roof houses with the woodsy clapboard that were so popular in the 1960s and ’70s.

Type Z, “Purra” ($93)

Type Z: More for architects, especially those who want their thick ankles wrapped in a Frank Gehry building!

Luichiny, “Rosey Posey” ($80)

Lui Chi: less Gehry, more Tin Man.  Still no good.

Gabriella Rocha, “Cierra” ($89)

Gabriella Rocha: Wait. Gabriella Rocha?  Gabriella Rocha of our perfect pointy-toe patent-leather ballet flats? et tu?

Bootie?  Sandal?  Sandal?  Bootie?  Make up your mind!  People, we’re at war.  Pick a side already, and the footwear that goes with it.  Stop the madness, and trot your tootsies right on by these nameless freaks and strap some gorgeous kicks on your gam pegs instead.


By the way, those Manolos come in a dozen or more colors, including tortoise shell, black patent, pale pink and azalea pink.  Have we presented enough evidence before the court?

no confusion here; Taste calls these shoes “perfection”

We thought so. Case dismissed.

flip flops

A shoe by any other name . . . will sell for $192 less. (Prada, available at Barney's, $195)

The following is a public service announcement, a call for a new public health initiative, an identification of a public nuisance, a diatribe against a foul practice that has invaded our schools, our churches, even our most esteemed halls of power.  It is a pestilence, and like many plagues, arrives in the warm weather: flip flops.

zōri and tabis (the only acceptable socks-and-sandals combination, unless your name has an umlaut or one of these in it: Ø)

Flip flops are the crummy descendents of much nobler ancestors.  They derive ultimately from the Japanese zōri, the traditional sandal made with a base of tatami mats and a thong of leather, brocade or silk.  They are worn over cotton socks called tabis, designed to accommodate the thong in between the toes. Zōri facilitate the tradition of quickly removing shoes upon entering a house, and allow wearers a similar sensation of walking on tatami-mat platforms as well as tatami mats themselves. These shoes could be the simple footwear for everyday clothes or, in their elevated version (geta), the elegant accompaniment of fine kimonos, and in part account for the tiny sliding steps taken by geisha.

By 1930, zōri were on the decline towards their ignominious later history in which the shuffling geisha swishing through a tea house is replaced by the slap of a sorority girl’s stomp through the mall.  New Zealanders (who should really stick to exporting products like Crowded House and Xena) adopted the woven sandals as beachwear.  Their evolution to the plastic stepchild of today is debated (and why anyone would want to claim this distinction—or the credit for, say, telemarketing, garden gnomes, Soviet anti-tank dogs or instant coffee—is a mystery), but likely occurred in the 1950s.  Of course it was only a matter of time before Americans embraced this new footwear option as the dandy marriage of Yankee convenience and affection for petroleum-based products.

Had flip flops stayed in those settings in which they were first employed, Taste would have no great complaint.  They are a pragmatic choice for negotiating a sandy beach and not messing up one’s more legitimate summer footwear.  They are a lighter alternative to Wellies for trips to the herb garden (and more justifiable if one’s garden is less than, say, 100 fathoms from the villa.)  They also make great sense in public pool and bathing establishments for keeping one’s foot cooties to one’s self, and for avoiding the adoption of others’ cooties.  (Taste is not sure why people go to these places, but as they do, Taste wants you to be careful with those foot cooties.)

flip flops at the White House (insert political joke here; July 2005)

But that’s it.  There is no other place where flip flops are suitable among polite society, for they are the very sign and symbol of all things tasteless.  They serve only the ease (not necessarily comfort, even) of the wearer, which makes them categorically impolite.  Footwear may be a pragmatic necessity but it is also an opportunity—as all clothes are—to engage or to affront.  The degree to which the latter is the case with flip flops was seen a few years ago when Northwestern University’s national championship women’s lacrosse team  (seen at left) sparked a huge public outcry by arriving at the White House shod in flops.  Lucky that you girls have sports or whatever, since in the Championship of Good Taste, it does not appear that you got game.  Except for slippers, there is no easier footwear than a flip flop, and taking the easy way out is never the tasteful option.  Flip flops are to footwear as sweatpants are to a Savile Row suit, as Ikea is to Samuel McIntire, as Dinty Moore canned stew is to Boeuf Bourguignon, as “URAQT” is to “all that’s best of dark and bright/Meet in her aspect and her eyes.”  They proclaim: I just do not care . . . about anything except . . . conserving my exceptionally low level of energy.

In addition, functionally, flip flops are just silly.  Whereas the original, natural-fiber Japanese version wicks moisture and ventilates the foot (helped along with those cotton socks), plastics are nasty near the skin: they are uncomfortable and unhygienic, turning footwear into Petri dishes full of foot germs.  They do little to protect the feet from dirt, rough surfaces and sharp objects.

$1,800: purchase power for one pair from Crystalishious or 600 pairs of flip flops from Walgreens

But worse yet, they are ugly.  It is true that otherwise admirable designers have been able to dress them up and make them more presentable (although we believe that Prada shoe at the top of the page pretty much phoned it in).  Even when ‘designed’ by ‘designers,’ they remain flip flops: even $1,797 worth of crystals cannot convincingly upgrade what is a $3 pair of shoes.  Seriously, if one is going to splash out on a haute designer, shouldn’t it be on hauteness that does not simulate a product that could be purchased at Walgreens?

What the drug store and designer shop versions have in common, at the end of the day, and this is where the flip flop goes really wrong, is that a foot will be put into them, and left exposed.  Feet are not pretty; it is the triumph of a well-designed shoe to enhance and beautify the stumps of bone, muscle and skin that bear our weight all day long.  John Lobb’s Oxford, Manolo Blahnik’s pump: both triumphs of the cobbler’s art.

Even worse than the way flip flops put feet on display when they are worn, most of those flip-flopped feet will find their way out of the shoes in public, as flip-flop wearers all too often slip out of them, as if this is somehow acceptable or forgivable.  It is not.  Rare indeed is the foot that is pretty, impeccably clean (especially within five minutes of walking outside in such shoes), well manicured, hairless and buffed enough, to be presentable virtually naked.  Feet are just ugly.  Even women’s feet, which are a zillion times more acceptable than men’s feet,  are ugly and are best at least partially covered.  Men’s feet should always, at every moment of the day, be covered.  This is a law of nature, of physics, of humanity.  Aristotle dedicated a lengthy section of the tragedy section of the Poetics to the subject of men’s feet.  It’s true.

As summer approaches, Taste makes a final plea to restore dignity to warm-weather footwear.  Gentlemen: forget about sandals; stick to the topsiders and sneakers, thank you.  If you are the kind of guy who can pull off a man-bag (to which we say, well done, sir), you may wear espadrilles.  Ladies: think fabric ballet flats, gladiator sandals, and above all, indulge in one of the great gifts to the world from Catalonia, where they know a thing or two about being stylish and tasteful when it’s hot: the sling back peep toe espadrille wedge.  Magnífico!

yes, and in every color

And please, if you are over the age of eight, do not even ask about those ‘jelly’ travesties.

no, never. not even in purple. no.